Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 4

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 4 - Mingulay
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After a night at the Monachs, we awoke to a morning of golden sunshine. The engines were fired up, anchor raised, and we set off to the south. Destination: Mingulay. Eighteen years had passed since I was last there, and I was looking forward to showing everyone its large puffin colony. Landing can be tricky, as the beach, which can look deceptively easy to land on, is subject to swells that can overturn a small boat. Charlie anchored just off the south shore of Mingulay Bay, where he set us ashore on the rocks near the ruin of the derrick platform that had been built in 1901. It was poorly built, and was not of much use. The struggling community finally left the island in 1912.

From the landing, we followed a track over to the old school, which has been renovated to house the ranger. Built in 1881, it saw its last pupil in 1910. The ranger was not in residence, so we had the island to ourselves.

Leaving the school, we followed 'Main Street' down to the village. Over the past century, drifting sands have half-buried the black houses near the beach. They are an odd sight, lintel stones in place a foot or two above the ground. It is as if the homes have sunk in quick-sand. The village burial ground lies just above the beach, an oval mound surrounded by a stone embankment. An early chapel dedicated to St Columba once stood on the site, and there are some fifty grave stones, most unmarked and covered by sand. 

The most substantial building here is the Priest’s House. Built of granite blocks, its ground floor had four rooms and a kitchen, which were used as quarters for visiting priests. The chapel on the upper floor, accessed by an external staircase, had been one large room, forty-five by twenty-five feet. It was in June of 1898 that Mass was first held here, celebrated by Father Allan MacDonald. There is a wonderful book about Fr Macdonald, Amy Murray’s Father Allan’s Island, written in 1920. The island referred to in the title is Eriskay, sixteen miles north of Mingulay. Fr MacDonald worked throughout all the Barra Isles until 1905, when he died from pneumonia at the age of forty-six. Murray’s book is a moving portrait of a man who gave his life to a people struggling to survive in these unforgiving isles in the sea.

Sadly, the Priest’s House is now a complete ruin. The roof blew off during a storm in the winter of 1996. When I'd last seen it, in 2004, the walls, and both gables, were still standing. It is now a pile of rubble, littered with fallen stones, shards of the slate roof, and chimney pots sitting oddly upright on the ground. 

To give you an idea of the destruction, the next photo is of the Priest's House in 2003.

Leaving the ruins behind, we headed across the hillside to the puffin colony. 

Once they got used to our presence, the puffins resumed their daily activities, which included a lot of squawking, kissing, and bringing back beak-fulls of sand eels to feed their pufflings. Puffins are known as Tammie-Norries in Shetland; papageitaucher in Germany (the diving parrots); and frilathios in Spain (the little friars, or, if you’re really hungry, maybe the little fryers). But I always think of them as the smiling birds. Not that they smile with their bright orange, red, and yellow bills. But if you watch people watching puffins, you’ll notice a lot of smiles.

It was a picture perfect day. The azure sky crisscrossed by high contrails. Were were now at the apogee of the cruise, and in the morning would start making our way back to Oban. But we'd have two more islands to visit along the way: Canna of Columba and Mull of the mountains.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 3

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 3 - Scarp to the Monachs
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After our wedding surprise in the Sound of Scarp, we set off for the Flannans. They lie 20 miles west of Lewis, and are home to a large gannetry. There had been a monastic hermitage there 1200 years ago, and its three beehive cells are in remarkably good shape. 

We motored into the sheltered bay below the lighthouse island. The tide was low, and we could see that the landing platform, and the stairs that ascend the island from it, were high above the waterline. It can be dangerous to get ashore here, and people have been injured in the attempt. On our 2019 trip we were able to land, but only after setting a rope so we could pull ourselves up to the beginning of the stairs. We did not have the crew complement to set a rope this time, so were unable to land. See this post for photos of the visit in 2019:

Charlie then took us on a tour around to the infamous West Landing, where the three keepers were washed away. Depending on the swell, landing here can be easier than the east side. But the problem is that a large section of the steps that ascend the cliff have washed away, so without ropes there is no way to ascend.

A look to the skyline above the landing showed two of the island's beehive cells, once home to monks, now home to puffins. The second photo below was taken in 2019, and shows the largest cell, a three-chambered oratory.

We then headed further west to take a look at the Roareim Gannetry. On the way we encountered a pod of white-sided Atlantic dolphins, including a stunning albino dolphin. Truly amazing!

Just off the Roareim Arch we came to a stop to admire the gannets filling the sky. It was raining guano, and a few of us took direct hits. (No matter how much I tried, I could not wash the gannet pooh stain out of my black coat until after I got home and put it through the wash twice). 

After a leisurely tour around the Flannans we turned south to make the five-hour journey down to the low-lying Monach Isles. We made an easy beach landing on Ceann Iar, the second largest of the island group. A sandbar once connected the Monachs to North Uist, but it was washed away during a storm in 1697.

We wandered across the primrose-dotted island to its small shieling village, then made our way to the summit trig-pillar. At 50 feet above sea-level it was not much of a climb.

We were unfortunate with the tide. When it's low you can cross over to the main island with its abandoned settlement, including a small museum in the old school. The following photo shows the flooded crossing.

I took a group photo at the trig pillar, then we returned to the ship. As we did there was some suspense in the air. Would we make it to Mingulay the next day - another 50 miles to the south - before the weather changed?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 2

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 2 - Isay to Scarp
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After our exploration of Isay we steamed across the Minch under cloudy skies. After passing through the Sound of Harris, Charlie took us up past Taransay and into the Sound of Scarp. As we passed Huisinis, on the Harris side of the Sound, we could see the Stiomar cutting across the Harris slopes. It is a thrilling, steep path, that leads from Husinis over to historic Cravadale. (For a description of that walk see this link: Cravadale Walk). Most who take the path do not go to Cravadale, as a side trail halfway along branches off to Traigh Mheilein, one of the most stunning beaches in the Hebrides. 

When I'd hiked the path in 2013 I did not take the detour to the beach, as I was exhausted. Little did I know that we'd be visiting that glorious beach the following day, and in doing so encounter the most surprising thing I've ever seen on a remote island beach. In the following photo you can just barely see the Stiomar path halfway up the hillside.

We anchored for the night just off the Scarp settlement, which saw its last full-time residents in 1971. The following morning we were greeted with sunshine and mostly clear skies that would be with us for several days. 

After landing on Scarp I led the group through the blackhouse settlement of North Town, and then to the old shop, post office, and burial ground.  

We then hiked up to the old schoolhouse, which is still in the process of falling down. When I first visited Scarp, in 2004, the roof was intact. But instead of scholars, a large class of sheep was sheltering inside. A while back the owners put a bit of money into the structure, complete with flush toilets. But they did nothing to improve the roof. Needless to say, winter winds took the roof, and the building won't last much longer.

Before leaving Scarp we stopped in to see Brian and Shiela Harper, who have been spending their springs and summers on the island for many years. They are a lovely couple, and it was a delight to see them again over a cup of tea. (See this link for more on Scarp and the Harpers: Scarp Posts.)

Brian then told me something surprising: a wedding was going to happen that afternoon on Traigh Mheilein beach, just opposite Scarp on Harris. So when Charlie offered to run us over to the beach for a couple of hours, some of the group decided to come along.

Magnificent does not come close to describing Traigh Mheilein: a mile-long stretch of blinding-white shell sand. What few visitors it does see, have to climb the Stiomar from Huisinis, a mile-long hike along that path that climbs 300 feet as it hugs the steep slopes of Huiseabhal Beag. (Most are not as fortunate as we were to be set ashore from a boat.) The following photo shows the view from the path looking down to Huisinis.

It was an entrancing walk along the beach to its north end, from where an easy hike over the dunes led to Loch na Cleabhaig. In the following photo the lone house of Cravadale can be seen on the far side of the loch.

From the high ground above the beach I had a birds-eye view over the Sound of Scarp, with Hjalmar Bjorge resting peacefully at anchor.

When I returned to the beach I had a vision: A lovely young woman in a flowing white dress slowly walking across the white sands, accompanied by a tall man in a kilt. (As it turned out, she'd injured her leg on the hike out.) From a discrete distance, I took a photo of the wedding party before Charlie came to return us to Hjalmar Bjorge. While he was ashore, Charlie was approached by someone from the wedding party, who asked if it would be possible to return the bride to Huisinis in the RIB, so that she would not have to make the strenuous return hike with a bad leg. Charlie was happy to oblige. Hjalmar Bjorge, a former rescue boat, had come to the rescue once again.

Back on the ship, we sat on the deck to watch the ceremony, which took a very long time; a drone flying around to take photos of the event: Charlie patiently waiting on the beach for over an hour.

All in all, it was one of the most unusual, and delightful, Hebridean days I've ever had: I'd seen old friends, showed off one of my favourite islands, and witnessed a beach wedding. We spent the night anchored in the sound, and in the morning set off for the Flannan Isles.

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 1

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 1 - Oban to Isay
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After being cancelled for two years, Season 5 has finally arrived. The cancellations were publicly blamed on COVID, but the true story is that the guide had demanded an exorbitant raise, free beer, and a total ban on fish pie. He finally relented when the skipper discovered the guide had an overdue four-figure bar bill and threatened legal action. 

And so, after a 30-month absence, I was back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge for my fifth guide trip. We were very fortunate - the sun was shining and the sea calm - as we set out from Oban. Aboard were seven guests, which made for a small, intimate group, as my previous guide trips have had up to 12 guests. Four of the group, Clare, Debbie, Wolfgang, and Nigel, were frequent flyers. New to Hjalmar Bjorge were Peter, Liz, and Anne, and the crew consisted of skipper Charlie McLeish, First Mate Mel, and chef Steve Milne.

We had a smooth three-hour sail up the Sound of Mull to settle in for the night in Glenmore Bay on the south side of Ardnamurachan. The next morning, Skipper Charlie took us up the Sea of the Hebrides to take a look at the Sanday Stacks (by Canna). Puffins are usually found there, but nary a one was in sight. A bit of a disappointment, but the massive number of puffins we'd see on Mingulay in a few days would make up for that.

The sea was slightly choppy as we motored up the west of Skye past the iconic Neist Point lighthouse. Along the way, several puffins, Manx shearwaters, and razorbills paid us a visit.

Our first island destination was Isay in Skye's Loch Dunvegan. Isay (√Ćosaigh, Old Norse for House Island) appeared as we rounded the Vaternish Peninsula. We took a look at the conditions near Isay, but it was too rough to anchor, so Charlie motored us towards the Skye shore to anchor for the night off the village of Stein.

After breakfast the following morning we headed over to Isay. There are two reasons Isay is well known to those who love Scottish islands. The first is because of the following passage from Boswell’s journal of his trip to the Hebrides in 1773:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

The second reason this little island is fairly well known is that it was owned, for a short time, by the singer Donovan.  Donovan bought Isay, the two neighbouring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s. A lot of what you read says he established a commune on Isay itself, which is not true. He did establish a commune in the area, but he pretty much glosses over it in his autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man. In a chapter entitled Lord of the Isles, Donovan describes how he met MacDonald of the Isles in Stein to discuss buying land, including the island of Isay. The chapter opens with the following:

My thoughts were drifting to the wild and windy land of my birth. I had some crazy notion of starting a commune with my artist friends, to pick up the threads of an early dream, to be a poet and painter. I felt that musical fame had led me astray.

We anchored off Isay in a spot sheltered by the smaller islands of Mingay and Clett. In the one song (that I know of) where Donovan mentions Isay, he also mentions these two small islands. The song, which was never formally released, is And Clett Makes Three, which you can listen to at this link:

We attempted to get ashore via the landing ladder used by the boats that make day trips from Dunvegan. I'd used this steep ladder the last time I landed on Isay, but ten years had passed, and time has taken its toll - the ladder was bent, slippy with seaweed, and looked scary - so we made an easy landing at the small beach just to the north.

Once ashore, we hiked through the abandoned village, passing, one by one, a dozen ruined houses. Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century when it had been a fishing station with a general store. The community came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

Here and there nettles and blue iris, but no people, greeted us as we explored the village. At the south end of the village we came to another string of houses, and below them stone fish traps could be seen on the foreshore.

A bit past the end of the village we came to Isay House. It is an eerie-looking structure. The roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends looked like pincers pointing to the sky, lying in wait to clutch one of the gulls that soared overhead. Access to the first floor is via a grand, stone-balustered staircase. (The balusters have long since gone with the wind.) The staircase is ten feet across at the ground, gradually tapering as it rises to the threshold of what had been the reception room. No door blocks the entrance these days, and if you step through you will fall ten feet down into the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

We took turns climbing to the top of the staircase to look out over the hollow interior. If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take Muck. But there was someone who stood here about fifty years ago that did decide to make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was Donovan. In his autobiography, he describes landing on Isay and sitting on tussocks of sea grass inside the ruin of Isay House when he decided to buy the property.  He goes on to tell about establishing the commune in the winter of 1968 by buying ‘a few old gypsy caravans’. Gardens were planted, and ‘my friends and I had probably experienced the last wilderness of Europe before the coming tide of development’. He then writes briefly about the end of the commune. It was turning out to be expensive, and so he ‘sold the Isles to a Dutchman’.

Something less picturesque happened in Isay House 400 years before Donovan's time. It was in 1592, when Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous) lived here. MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited. During dinner each attendee was invited to have a private word with him and, one by one, each was quietly murdered.

Tour of the island complete, I took a group photo, then everyone dispersed to wander for the remaining hour ashore. Pictured are: Top row - Clare, Peter, Ann and Debbie.  Bottom row: Anne, Wolfgang, and Nigel. Over the coming week we'd get to know each other, and what a week it would be. Sitting there on Isay we had no idea of what marvelous weather awaited us - the sun shining down as we'd explore five more islands. 

Our next stop would be Scarp, where Hjalmar Bjorge, a former rescue boat, would be called upon to rescue an injured bride from the white sands of Traigh Mheilein.

I see, you see, we’ll all be free,
Isay, Mingay, and Clett makes three.

‘Isay, Mingay, and Clett Makes Three’, Donovan (1970)